Toronto Raptors: What to watch for during the last stretch of the season

Toronto Raptors - Marc Gasol (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Marc Gasol (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /

After winning 9 of their last 10, the Toronto Raptors aim to start building some new momentum as the playoffs are around the corner.

Sitting just 2.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors have set themselves up wonderfully for a ‘second-half push’. The push is an all-out out war for the first place slot in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks look as scary as they ever have during their time as a franchise, so don’t expect them to simply roll over when the Raptors show up.

The Raptors, like every other playoff contending team, are starting to get mentally and physically prepared for the long grueling battle on its way. The last 19 games of the season are bigs ones as they will be used to “test the playoff waters”.

Disappointingly, the Raptors aren’t facing off against multiple heavyweights but will run into a couple fringe Eastern teams (such as Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets and the Miami Heat), but do eventually face the Oklahoma City Thunder (twice to be exact).

It felt like just yesterday the NBA season had begun, but with playoffs knocking on the door, the Raptors better get themselves prepared.

Fixing consistency issues

The Raptors have become a force within not just the East but the entire NBA, thanks to a combination of things such as the draft, trades and a new coach/system. Putting all these things together has resulted in the greatest Raptors team in franchise history, but the greatest team or not the Raptors still have some kinks preventing them from being the champions.

The biggest red flag this year (and last) has been the lack of consistency when the Raptors open and close games. Many times the Raptors will find themselves behind after the first quarter (especially to weak teams), forced to play catch up during the second and the third quarter and then play hellish defense as they watch the lead they built come crumbling down during the fourth.

It’s been a constant issue for the Raptors even plaguing them during the most important time of the year: the playoffs

It seems no matter the lineup the pressure always pushes through and gives the Raptors a test they sometimes can’t handle. That’s not saying that the Raptors always blow the lead, there have been multiple close calls, games coming down to the wire as the good guys sneak out by a bucket or two. Wins or not, these games have been too close for comfort and need to be eliminated come playoff time.

The stronger teams like the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and the Indiana Pacers aren’t just going to roll over and play dead, especially during late games. If the Raptors plan on going the distance these playoffs their early and late game antics are going to need to come to an end.

Integrating Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin into the lineup / Figuring out the rotation

Any team looking to beef up for the playoffs utilizes either the trade deadline or the buyout market as a way to get temporary solutions to problems. The Toronto Raptors did just that when they traded for All-Star center Marc Gasol, but not only did they use the trade market they were also active during the buyout period, acquiring players like Jeremy Lin and Jodie Meeks.

While trading and signing new players is always an exciting time for the team and the fans, it can also present its own set of problems. The biggest problem almost always being an issue of chemistry amongst the players. While it’s said that basketball is a universal language there is still the ‘occasional’ miscommunication.

The issue has already shown its head a few times, as it takes time to learn your teammates and their different play styles. Adding to the pressure of having to meet an entirely new team the players must also quickly learn new offensive and defensive schemes.

These problems can also be relevant to the players already on the team, the slow process of teaching new teammates plays can get frustrating if things are picked up quickly. So the closer your team is the better it will be when integrating new players if they can get through the

Both Gasol and Lin were brought on to be impact players, just at different levels. Gasol will find himself fighting for the starting role with Serge Ibaka, but matchups will likely play a large factor in who gets the start.

Gasol brings a lot of great things (more on Gasol’s role) to the team and will be an intricate part of setting up the offense from here on out. His playmaking will be key to the unit’s success.

Lin is a firecracker off the bench, the backup point guard gives instant offense and knows how to run a unit. He’s a proven veteran who’s performed consistently throughout his career no matter what team he’s on, so he shouldn’t have as hard of a time figuring out his way.

Lin will most likely slide into the role earlier occupied by Delon Wright, playing the third guard role, leading the bench unit and combining with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet for the ever deadly three-guard rotation.

Although adding players has its challenges, the players being veterans makes it a much easier transition for the team.

Earning home court advantage

Lastly, as mentioned earlier in the article, the Raptors are currently two games behind the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s clear that the battle for first place in the East is between the two teams, and the Raptors are going to need to bring it every single night if they hope to make up the difference.

Raptors’ fans should find some joy in knowing that the Raptors have the easiest schedule the rest of the way. Although, as appealing as the schedule is, the team still has to be wary of playing down to the level of the competition, possibly resulting in the losses of very winnable games.

The Raptors need to avoid becoming complacent and simply resting their players/giving up on the first seed. The past has shown that teams can be susceptible to having “already made it” and are prone to slowing down when they see the finish line.

The goal for the Raptors this season was and is to make the finals, even if expectations surrounding the organization have slightly changed due to performance. To reach their goal, the Raptors are going to need every advantage they can find, starting with home court.

The battle won’t be an easy one, the Bucks have had an incredibly dominant season, far surpassing expectations set at the start of the year. Giannis Antetokounmpo has played at an MVP level throughout this season, in past years he’s been dominant, but now he’s downright destructive.

The Greek Freak is an athletic specimen that knows almost no bounds, asides the three-point line, and is ready to carry his team if need be. Adding to him, the Bucks also have quite the easy slate of upcoming games making the climb to first just that much steeper.

Being at home has long been praised for it’s ‘leg-up’ that it gives the home team, becoming even more amplified during the playoffs. This is especially noticeable in a crazed city like Toronto, where fans are willing to brave the various weather conditions through the playoffs simply to show their support for the team. Jurassic Park will be ready, let’s hope the team is as well.

It’s now or never for the Raptors. In years past they’ve been run off the floor by the likes of LeBron James and whatever band of misfits he’s put together. But, even though things are different this year with LeBron out of the East so many of the same issues are still problems.

The good news for the Raptors is that they have yet to hit that final gear, that last little push over the edge. If they hope to find that extra level they going to need to use the last 19 games to shore up their consistency issues, integrate their new players into the rotation and battle their way to a playoff home court advantage.

Pau Gasol wouldn't have worked in Toronto. dark. Next

The Raptors have shown their strength throughout the season, most recently dominating the Boston Celtics with ease, but still, have many issues that need to be fixed over the next 19 games if they want to leave their mark on the league. It might be hard to believe thanks to the past, but the Raptors are a contending and dangerous team.